Murderer's death sentence overturned

An appellate judge has overturned an Augusta death sentence imposed nearly 21 years ago.

Judge John E. Morse Jr. ruled Ernest U. Morrison's convictions for rape, robbery and murder should stand, but the death sentence must be reversed for ineffective assistance of counsel.

Mr. Morrison's lead defense attorney, O.L. Collins, not only did not do anything to prepare for trial, he advocated for a death sentence for his client, wrote Judge Morse, of the Eastern Judicial Circuit, who was assigned Mr. Morrison's habeas corpus petition, an appellate step in which the defendant challenges the legality of his punishment.

Mr. Morrison, 47, pleaded guilty in Richmond County Superior Court and waived his right to a jury trial on the issue of punishment. He was sentenced to death for the Jan. 9, 1987, murder of Mary Edna Griffin.

District Attorney Ashley Wright, the latest prosecutor to inherit the case in the past two decades, received a copy of the judge's 55-page order Thursday.

"We have to talk to the (victim's) family and digest the order before making any final decision," Ms. Wright said.

Russ Williard of the attorney general's office, which defends the state when death row cases are appealed, said attorneys are reviewing the decision. Either side may appeal Judge Morse's ruling to the Georgia Supreme Court, or Mr. Morrison's case could be returned to Augusta for a new sentencing trial.

Mrs. Griffin, 54, and her husband had allowed Mr. Morrison to stay at their home for a few days. They didn't know he had just escaped from a South Carolina jail.

Judge Morse noted in his ruling that evidence of Mr. Morrison's guilt was so overwhelming, nothing an attorney did would have changed the conviction. Thus, he found no reason to set aside the guilty plea.

The same was not true of the death sentence, the judge wrote.

The 1987 sentencing judge might have been swayed to sentence Mr. Morrison to life in prison instead of death, but his attorneys did nothing to uncover and present such evidence, Judge Morse wrote. Mr. Collins, now deceased, did not even read the discovery provided by the prosecutor, he wrote. The second attorney appointed two weeks before trial simply did not have time to prepare, the judge wrote.

Mr. Collins' failure to investigate was aggravated by his actual advocacy for a death sentence, Judge Morse wrote. Mr. Collins even concocted evidence to support his argument that Mr. Morrison deserved to die, he wrote.

Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or sandy.hodson@augustachronicle.com.

TIMELINE

JAN. 9, 1987: Ernest Morrison rapes and murders Mary Edna Griffin.

OCT. 30-NOV. 2, 1987: Mr. Morrison pleads guilty and receives a death sentence.

NOV. 10, 1988: Georgia's Supreme Court affirms on direct appeal.

AUG. 9, 1989: Mr. Morrison files a state habeas corpus petition.

SEPT. 16, 1992: A habeas judge orders a new trial for Mr. Morrison on the issue of mental retardation and sends the case back to Richmond County Superior Court.

MARCH 5, 1999: A jury rules that Mr. Morrison is not mentally retarded. Three more years pass before a trial court denies a motion for a new trial.

APRIL 8, 2005: An amended habeas corpus petition is filed for Mr. Morrison.

APRIL 18: A judge rules Mr. Morrison is entitled to a new sentencing trial.